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What in the World?

Solar panels may not actually reduce our carbon footprint

Feb 07, 2023

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Solar energy use in the United States is expected to soar over the next decade. Solar could make up 40% of America’s electricity by 2035, according to the Department of Energy. Clean energy initiatives are a key aspect of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, with billions of dollars in the bill dedicated to alternative energy.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan cautions that we should lower our expectations with regard to solar power because unless you live in a place blessed with great sun exposure, solar panels may not actually help reduce our carbon footprint at all.

Excerpted from Peter’s Feb. 6 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

For solar power to make sense, there’s one non-negotiable component…and yes, it’s that bright, shiny thing in the sky – the sun. But just because your planet has a sun doesn’t mean you should use solar power…The best examples are places like Denver or SoCal, where the sun is out showing off most days of the year. Then you move on to places like New York, Toronto or Berlin – which have plenty of overcast days – and your case for using solar power goes out the window.The point of all of this isn’t to say that solar power can’t be part of the energy solution, but there are still quite a few hoops we’ve got to jump through to get there.

Hey, everybody, hello from Colorado, Peter Zeihan here. Today I wanted to talk about solar. Since it’s a sunny day,

I am green, but I’m a green who can do math. So I don’t get invited to really any of the green parties. Solar is great. If you know, if you have one of those – a sun. Not just you have to have one for your planet, you have to be able to see it regularly. Solar intensity around the world varies by an order of magnitude based on where you are. And if your goal is to both generate a meaningful amount of electricity and reduce your carbon footprint. There are only a handful of places where today’s solar technology really work. Well, now I live in one of them. Denver is the sunniest city in the United States, and people like Oh, Shouldn’t that be Phoenix who doesn’t know, because there’s more things that go in there than temperature, humidity, air density, wind patterns, weather and patterns. Denver sits on the lee side of the Rocky Mountains. So it’s in the rain shadow of the largest mountain range on the continent. And it gets its weather in two phases, either storms that blow in from the mountains, or storms that blow off the Great Plains. In both cases, the storms tend to be cold fronts. So they whip through fast, they drop a lot of rain or snow and then they move on leaving clear air behind. If you’re in Phoenix, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of particulate matter because of the dry desert nature of the place. And a lot of smog, if you’re in Dallas Fort Worth, you’re dealing with humidity, there just aren’t very many places in the world that have a really good solar quotient.

And in the United States, you’re pretty much talking about the California coastline into Southern California and then into the desert southwest. And there’s this little hook up the east side of the Front Range, which is where I live. In fact, I’m one up on Denver, because I’m at 7500 feet. So we regularly get snow in our valleys and fog in our valleys and Denver will get fogged in. But I am a half a vertical mile above Denver. And so it is very rare for my neighborhood to be fully cloudy for a whole day. It only happens about 20 or 30 days a year, as opposed to when you have an atmospheric haze, which in most populated parts of the world lasts pretty much you know entire seasons. That means that my panels if you were to put them in New York, only generate about a quarter of the power that they generate for me. Put that in Toronto, you’re down to one-fifth. 

You put it in Berlin, down to one-sixth. As a rule, most of human population, most notably in southeast China, or excuse me, in the East Chinese coast, Northern Europe and Northeast United States, you put up solar panels, you are most likely generating more carbon from the creation of the panel and transmission system than you will ever pay down from the electricity that you generate. So you’re actually contributing to the problem rather than solving it. Which brings us to a second problem. I live in a rural area. So I’ve got a big roofline. And I have an 11.5 kilowatt solar system, which is about the maximum that Colorado allows when you’re going to do a feed in tariff, which is a fancy way of saying that you pay into the grid with electricity, the same rate that they charge you to get it out. 

It’s a great system we’ve got here in rural Colorado. Most cities don’t have that option. Number one, you’re going to have to have a more profit-driven electrical system, I work with a co-op, which means they’re not going to give you as generous of feeding rates. And second, cities by their very definition are densely populated. Solar by its very nature has to be distributed. So yes, if you live in a traditional single family neighborhood, with homes with sizable roof lines and a lot of south-facing frontage, you may may be able to have a decent solar quotient for your system, especially if you live in the American Southwest or California. 

But if you live in a mid rise, much less a high rise, much less than a cannulated city like Chicago or New York, there’s nowhere to put the panels in the first place, you’re gonna have to put them outside of the city. And now you’re talking about transmission costs. And if you’re in New York, you’re not going to put it outside of City of New York, because that’s equally cloudy, you’re gonna have to go down to like Central Virginia, and then there’s a half a dozen major cities between you and where you’re gonna be pulling your power from. 

It’s not that solar can’t be part of the solution; it can. But it really only works in some very specific geographies, like where I live where it works really well. For us to fix this three things need to change number one, we need panels that capture more of the sun and translate more of its energy into electricity. The rate of recovery for that has been incrementally going up for a while now. There is now panels on the drawing board and not on production on the drawing board. They can capture as much as half, that’s great, huge step in the right direction.

But you also then treat me transmission to get it from where places that are sunny and you put up your solar panels to where people actually live. And to do that at scale. We’re not just talking about high voltage lines at across state lines, we’re talking about relatively room temperature semiconductors. And for those of you been following some of my other energy work, you know the same thing as Bessie, basically necessary for new fusion power as well, single large facilities that you want nowhere near city that can transport the power over hundreds of miles if necessary. But the third thing, that’s probably going to be the most problematic in the near term, and that’s capital.

When you put up a solar farm, or wind farm, or any sort of green tech, you have to pay for it up front, which means you have to finance it. If you’re putting up a coal and natural gas plant, most of the cost of operating that plant over its lifespan is in fuel. So you pay for that as you go, the financing needs are not nearly as much. And with the baby boomers moving into mass retirement and liquidating all of their high velocity capital, other stocks, all their bonds, everything’s going into tea bills, and cash. And the volume of capital that is available to finance green tech projects just isn’t going to be there at the scale we’ve become used to. And that’s not just for green tech, that’s for everything from car loans to borrowing to pay for Super carriers.

Everything is going to get more expensive to finance. And since green tech must be financed up front, it is going to be the economic sub sector that’s probably going to suffer most dramatically over the next few years. Unless the technology changes. You change that technology on me I reserve the right to change my mind. All right. That’s it for me. Until next time.

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